In the Quechua culture of the Peruvian Andes, an ukuku is a demi-god character—half human, half Andean bear—that delivers ice from high-elevation glaciers to provide water to the surrounding towns.
“They are sacred,” recalls National Geographic Explorer Ruthmery Pillco Huarcaya, who grew up in a small Quechua village outside of Cusco. “I loved this interaction between human and animal.”
The ukuku folklores of Pillco Huarcaya’s childhood piqued her interest in the Andean bear, and launched her on a lifelong journey to protect these formidable, legendary mammals.
Andean bears (Tremarctos ornatus, which translates to “decorated bear”) are both the only surviving species of bear in South America as well as the last extant species of short-faced bears in the world. They have evolved to be distinct from other bear species in several key ways.
“[The Andean bear] is very different from bears in North America,” Pillco Huarcaya explains. “Andean bears are more vegetarian, they have a different diet, and they have these migrations from the very high Andes to the lowlands.”
Their migratory patterns make Andean bears a critical species to the ecosystems they pass through. As one of the largest primarily vegetarian species in the region, they play an important role in dispersing the seeds of the plants they consume along their routes, thus passively regenerating the forests that they depend on for survival.
The bears face a multitude of threats, some environmental. “In all these key habitats—the cloud forests, the puna [grasslands],” Pillco Huarcaya explains, “we’ve got climate change. The habitat is disappearing in the high Andes, and water is decreasing.”
Andean bears are further threatened by human activities. They frequently fall victim to poaching, either for sport or due to conflict with local farmers.
“Sometimes,” Pillco Huarcaya says, “the bears kill cows to eat them, which generates some conflict. In many cases they kill the bears for this reason.”
Pillco Huarcaya’s journey to studying Andean bears was somewhat less-than-direct, and for her family, unexpected.
“In remote areas, most of our parents didn’t go to the university,” Pillco Huarcaya recounts. “What they want is for their children to study medicine, to be a lawyer, or to be an engineer. That’s the dream. I remember the first time I said I wanted to study biology and they were in shock.”
But she was determined to chase her dream, and undertook a course of study culminating in a master’s degree in plant and fungi taxonomy, conservation, and biodiversity from Queen Mary University of London and Kew Gardens.
As a trained biologist, Pillco Huarcaya led projects to restore and assess the conservation status of threatened species of trees in the Osa Peninsula region of Costa Rica. Until she received what would be a life-changing phone call.
“I was in Costa Rica, working on tree conservation,” she recalls. “I received a call, telling me that there is an opportunity in Peru to work with the Andean bear.” Without hesitation, she left her job in Costa Rica and headed home to the mythical bears of her childhood.
In 2022, Pillco and her team at Conservación Amazónica-ACCA will traverse the Amazon rainforest in order to better understand both the importance of the Andean bear to its habitat and the threats it faces. They will collaborate with fellow National Geographic Explorer Baker Perry, who brings a deep knowledge of glacier environments that Pillco hopes will be illuminating.
“I think it’s great,” Pillco says, “I’ve never done any work in the glaciers, so I think it will be very key to see what Baker is doing.”
Among the information Pillco Huarcaya and her collaborators seek to gather are details about the bears’ movements across the landscape and specifics about their food sources.
“Now is the time to get as much information as we can,” Pillco Huarcaya says, “to know how these bears are moving across the gradients, and what the main food plants are for them, so that we can use them in our restoration project.”
Pillco Huarcaya, who until she was school age spoke only Quechua, is also eager to involve Indigenous groups and local communities in the work. She is inviting community members from the surrounding areas to join their expeditions—especially young people.
“You might think ‘They live in the land of the bear,’ but many of them don’t know the bear,” she says. “Especially the new generation…not many of them go out into the field.”
Pillco Huarcaya understands this collaboration as an important component of her work. For the Quechua and other people living in the vicinity of South America’s last bear species, she says, “I just want to bring back this awareness of the importance of the bear.”
Ruthmery Pillco Huarcaya is participating in the National Geographic Society Perpetual Planet Amazon Expedition—a two-year series of scientific studies spanning the entire Amazon River Basin, supported by Rolex as part of its Perpetual Planet initiative. Learn more about the expedition.